I once had a commodore who was fond of saying, “life is a test, and you can fail.” It is not much of a leap to modify that to “Life is a game, and you can lose.” Or play poorly.
In games, particularly those involving strategic game theory, there are players who have options. Those options have varying payoffs. Payoffs can either be positive (rewards) or negative (penalty). Based on those payoffs, players will make choices based on what appears to be in their best interest. But the payoff I ultimately receive is a function of both my choice and the choice my opponent makes. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a well known example.
It is those payoffs which influence the players’ behavior.
As I follow the BP oil spill story in the Gulf of Mexico, I frequently read things like “The Coast Guard has given BP a 48 hour deadline to come up with a better containment plan,” or “The President is increasing the pressure on BP.”
In the first case, a deadline can be seen as a time limit applied to a series of choices. The very first choice is whether or not to comply with the deadline. Returning to game theory, choices are made based on payoffs. So what is the payoff-penalty if BP chooses not to comply? Do you ever hear the “or else” part, as in “Meet this deadline or else.” Or else what?
In the second case, increasing “pressure” on a player again would seem to indicate a desire to change my opponent’s choice-behavior, i.e. the calculus he goes through in making his decision. Once again returning to game theory, this is done by changing (1) the number of options, and/or (2) the payoffs. The President would appear to be trying to change the magnitude of a negative payoff; the penalty associated with options the President would rather BP not choose. He could of course try to increase the reward for options he would rather they choose as in game theory payoffs are relative , though I doubt he’s in the mood to be seen as rewarding BP for anything. So the payoffs must be changed to increase the deterrent effect for some options and thereby increase the attractiveness of others for BP, which makes them want to act before the payoffs get potentially worse ( If you’re into game theory, this example has elements common to a Rubinstein Bargaining game, where time becomes a factor).
But in my admitted overly simplified example, the game here depends on all the players agreeing that (1) these are the only options, and (2) these are the understood payoffs. Notice that in both the previous examples, the focus is on one player trying to define the payoffs, not for himself, but for the other player. Recall though that a rationale player acts in his own best interest, and that only the player can determine what is or is not in their best interest.
So we have a very flawed game with missing or ill-defined payoffs. Now clearly the game is much more involved than presented here. The number or players, the number of options are much more complex. But from a game design perspective, the BP spill illustrates both the importance and difficulty of understanding the problem and getting the “rules” of the game right. This is why games, good games, take more than just a few weeks to put together. If you have a cookie-cutter problem, you can have a cookie-cutter game, but seldom are complex problems that easy to solve.